Penn Parish Local History

The French School at Penn

Edmund Burke as a young man

A year ago, I met two senior French civil servants who were visiting Penn, accompanied by the head of the Consular Division of our Foreign Office. Both Frenchmen were devotees of Edmund Burke who wrote passionately and to great effect about the French Revolution, and they wanted to know about the school that he had set up overlooking the pond at Penn, in 1796, for the sons of the émigré noblesse francaise.

The meeting reminded me that although I knew a good deal about the school from archival sources in England, I had no idea what the French boys themselves thought about their time in Penn or what had happened to any of them after they had left the school. I clearly needed to find French sources to bring the school to life but had little idea of how to set about it.

I was very lucky. My Foreign Office Consul acquaintance put me on to a rather bemused Press Counsellor in the French Embassy in London who proved remarkably effective. Within two weeks I was in touch with a General Jean du Verdier in Versailles who had only recently written an article about Le College de Penn.

We started an increasingly animated and cordial correspondence, each keeping to his own language, and it transpired that he was related to the de Genouillac family who had sent two boys to the Penn school in the 1790s.

The family had all returned to France in about 1800 leaving their younger son, nine years old Casimir, to finish his schooling, as they thought, for a few years. However, the war between France and England and the fear of compulsory military service in Napoleon’s army, prevented his return for 14 long years. He was completely cut off since the almost continual blockade of the Channel ports by the Royal Navy meant that letters had to go via Jersey and then clandestinely into Brittany, and so were often lost or delayed for months and even years.

Meanwhile, after leaving the school in 1808, aged 17, with only 12 guineas to see him on his way, Casimir eked out a living as a teacher in small schools around Penn (as his father had done in the 1790s). He had to endure the widespread, undiscriminating and sometimes violent hatred of all things French and Catholic. “No Jews, no wooden shoes, no Popery” was a popular cry of the day. He was also permanently in debt and at times despaired for his future.

He may not have survived without the friendship and support of the Abbe Maraine, the headmaster of the school, known to all the boys as ‘Le Chef’ and thought of as a father. Every Sunday, Casimir went back to Penn which to him was his home and a sanctuary in a cruel world. He and his fellow former pupils formed a close-knit group lending each other both money and moral support.

Some, like Casimir, had become teachers, one became a well-known doctor in Birmingham, another was a musician and portrait painter in Jersey and one of Casimir’s cousins went to Canada, but the majority seem to have been commissioned into the British army, as Burke had intended, and some served under Wellington in the Peninsula.

They were intensely proud of and grateful to their school. A letter describes, “there are several ‘Pennois’ in my regiment. We call ourselves ‘Pennois’. We keep up the name, When we hear that a ‘Pennois’ is to join the expeditionary corps, a cry goes up, ‘Ah, we would be very happy if he came to our regiment.”

Another school friend, Gustave de Roquefeuil, whose father, the Marquis de Roquefeuil was actually living in Penn in 1797, later wrote to Casimir, “England is a country that will always give me infinite pleasure, J’aime John Bull, J’aime les beefsteak et comme dit Lord Byron, ‘Je love a pot of beer as well as any’. He also reminisced, rather ruefully, about playing cricket at Penn.

Almost all their letters to each other were in French but with some franglais and often ending affectionately in English with ‘farewell myoid friend’, ‘yours for ever,’ ‘yours my good fellow’.

Casimir eventually found a more agreeable post, at a small school near Newbury, under the Rev. James Knollis who became a good friend and who, by a strange coincidence, was to become Vicar of Penn from 1823 to 1860. It was he who built the Old Vicarage that still stands next door to the church.

In 1814, Casimir was finally able to return home to France and to see his family again including a five year old sister he had never met before, and brothers and sisters who he had last seen 14 years earlier. He was quite nervous about the reunion and one can imagine the profound emotion of it all.

Miles Green, Village Voice 63, October/November 1997.

The French School at Penn (Part 2)

When Napoleon escaped from Elba the following year, Casimir immediately joined the royalist army of Brittany and served as a Captain-Adjutant. One of his duties was to make contact with the Royal Navy off the Brittany coast and collect the arms sent to support the royalist cause. After Waterloo (in which he did not take part) he qualified in law but never practised it as a profession. He didn’t need to. His father was now a Comte (Count) with over 4,000 acres in Brittany and Anjou and Casimir himself was a Viscount and a Baron.

When he married, in 1827, he inherited the Chateau du Rox in Brittany as part of his marriage settlement. His wife was equally aristocratic and wealthy. Amongst the many distinguished wedding guests was a certain Viscount de Roquefeuil, Casimir’s old friend Gustave. How they must have relished the change in their fortunes.

However, not all his relatives had been so fortunate. An uncle had faced a firing squad, a 71 year old cousin died in prison, one of 30 starving men crammed into one room and another young female cousin died after enduring brutal treatment. Another unfortunate relative had been arrested en route to England and had to feign madness to escape the guillotine.

The school at Penn stayed open for a further five years after Waterloo. Casimir stayed there in 1819 when on a six month tour of all the places in England that he wanted to see. When the school was finally closed, in 1820, Casimir hastened back to be present at the last prize giving and to thank his old masters. The head master, the Abbe Maraine, now 74, was awarded the decoration of the Order of the Lys by Louis XVIII. Two years later, the school was pulled down and carried away.

Casimir, naturally enough a staunch royalist, was put in Rennes jail for six months· in 1831, on a charge of treason. The Bourbons had been exiled to Scotland in 1830 and Casimir had travelled to see them using a false passport and disguised as an English gentleman called Mr Algernon Stewart. He could, of course, easily pass for an Englishman.

After his release he was out of sympathy with all the successive administrations and spent most of his energies raising his family of five boys and restoring and improving his neglected chateaux and estates.

This year; (1997) one of Casimir’s direct descendants, General Jean du Verdier, has completed an article on the school based on the extensive family archives carefully assembled by Casimir in the library of the Chateau du Rox in Brittany, still owned and occupied by his great grandson, the present Comte de Genouillac.

Chateau de RoxI was pleased to be invited to stay at the chateau for a few days to see the archives at first hand and to get a feel of the ambience. I accepted with alacrity and like Casimir, went via Jersey and thence by ferry to St Malo and car to the chateau.

I found a chateau full of period furniture and family portraits. The Comte, knowing my interest, had already taken some 30 of the portraits off the wall and had them professionally photographed in Rennes. Copies of the portraits of Casimir, his forebears and his descendants were set out for me on the desk in the library, together with all the bundles and boxes of family papers likely to be of interest to me. A photocopying machine was at my disposal and the Comte himself was at hand to answer any questions. It was a historical treasure trove.

The system of inheritance or ‘partage’ as it is called, in France, introduced by Napoleon, requires any inheritance to be equally divided between all the children, both sons and daughters. It is therefore, apparently comparatively unusual for old houses and estates to survive in the same family for many generations. Le Rox (pronounced Rhow) is an exception and still sits amidst 300 acres belonging to the estate.

The Comte, aged 75, is a very considerable personality, a former army officer and engineer completely down to earth and combining a high degree of practical skills with a very knowledgeable and academic interest in his archives. He and his wife look after the chateau almost entirely by themselves and he is devoted to it. He regards Casimir as perhaps his most important forbear in that they both shared a passionate interest in the chateau which is still much as Casimir left it. He has five children and many grandchildren for whom the chateau remains the focus of family reunions.

All the marvellous materials gathered from General du Verdier and from the chateau, were integrated (with indispensable help from Jean Rollason who has impressive French) into a dramatic presentation which the Penn and Tylers Green Society put on in Beaconsfield Church on July 6 to celebrate Burke’s bicentenary. The photographs of the chateau and its rooms and of the portraits, together with the more interesting documents, formed part of a splendid exhibition about Burke, put together by Elizabeth Scott-Taggart of the Beaconsfield Historical Society.

My own interest in the de Genouillac family has not yet run its course. I have been asked to read a paper to an international conference on French émigrés which is to be hosted by the French Institute in London in 1999. My contribution will be published as part of the proceedings of the conference and so the de Genouillac story will be recorded for international posterity.

Miles Green, Village Voice 64, Christmas 1997.

One of the French boys is buried at Penn Church and there is a long account of his funeral in Beaconsfield.  Since they were all Catholics, I suspect that it was ‘faute de mieux’ (‘for want of anything better‘), as they might have said!.  MIles Green

The Holy Trinity, Penn burial register records:  Jan 3, 1806,  Ferdnand D’Aguisy, “one of the young Gentlemen at the French School, aged 16 years & 5 months.  He had lately been appointed to an ensigncy in the 60th Regt.”

Note: Holy Trinity, Penn was founded as a Catholic Church and remained so for four centuries until the Reformation, when Penn Church, and every church in England, effectively became Church of England.  From the Reformation, and the death of Mary Tudor in 1558, until after the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 there were no ‘Catholic’ Churches in England.

A stone throwing revolutionary mob comes to Penn

We have already noted that the school was at first described as a royal school with  the Comte d’Artois, who was to succeed to the throne of France as Charles X, as its patron.  The Comte greatly admired Burke, as is evidenced by these extracts from two letters he wrote to him in 1795 and 1796.

 Monsieur,

Please allow me, in my capacity as the first subject of the King of France, to express to you from the bottom of my heart the powerful sense of gratitude felt towards you forever more by the noblesse française.

Heaven may grant that the memory of our misfortunes will in time fade, but the memory of the great Monsieur Burke will live forever in the hearts of all true French patriots and their descendants.

Charles Phillippe, Comte d’Artois.

 It was this strongly royalist aspect of the school which resulted in an attack by a stone-throwing mob of English Jacobins, sympathetic to the French revolutionaries, nine months after the school had opened.  The mob pulled down part of the wall, and broke every window in the house, presumably by throwing the bricks and flints from the wall.  The housekeeper was wounded near her eye.  Threats of violence were sent to Burke at Gregories, but he was not well and the news was kept from him.

Jacobins took their name from the Jacobin Club in Paris, the home of the revolutionary political movement which overthrew the  French monarchy and directed the French Revolution. This movement followed closely on the American Revolution and initially attracted considerable support from English thinkers and politicians searching for an ideal society, including the Whig opposition led by Charles James Fox.  There was a real fear of revolution in England and in 1791, Burke wrote a pamphlet, Reflections on the Revolution in France, arguing powerfully that it was folly to discard the constraints of established institutions which would inevitably lead to individual barbarism and the destruction of civilisation.

The French School therefore represented everything the Jacobins wished to destroy.   It must have been a terrifying experience for the boys and their masters who had only recently faced the same terror in France.  There is no record of how the mob was restrained from further violence. There was no national police force, just parish constables, who could not have dealt with a mob.  Perhaps the army was called in to restore order although the Royal Military College was not established in Wycombe until three years later.   I have yet to check newspapers for any reports of the attack.

The Penn Church register records the burial there in August 1802 of Mary Edwards, “Housekeeper at the French School, aged 62 years, a Roman Catholic”.  Burke refers to Mrs Edwards in his letters and it must have been her who was wounded in the attack.

Miles Green, Village Voice,  November 2013


Memories of Penn Church School – Part 1

Did you know that Penn Church Hall opposite Penn Church
(and next to the Crown Pub) started life as a school?

A little while ago, I was hugely fortunate to be in conversation with some of the former pupils of this school, known as Penn Church School. They generously shared their memories and anecdotes of day-to-day school life pre-war and during the war years when evacuees joined local children. In the next newsletters I will document some of these wonderful stories. This edition will focus on the school in the 1920s.

A quick introduction to the building

The eagle eyed might spot the initials H.G.H and the coronet above the gable window. The initials are those of Harriet Georgiana Howe in whose memory a Girls Working School was built by the 1st Earl Howe in 1839. From 1870 when their school at Church Knoll was dismantled, and until 1949 when the school closed due to dwindling numbers, boys joined the girls at what became known as Penn Church School. The school was extended in 1910 (probably just after the photo of the children gathered by the door). Just as a note, it seems apt that the Hall is now home to another school, Little Oaks One Nursery.

The school day in the 1920s

At this time Penn Church School was attended by around 60 children from the ages of 4/5 to 13/14. Everyone walked to school without their parents and in all weathers – indeed this was the case throughout the school’s history. The group from Forty Green would walk through fields except when it was very muddy when they would use Paul’s Hill – either way quite a distance for a 4/5 year-old to walk! Some might wear the “Penn C of E” school badge on a blazer if they had one. One contributor recalls that the only day they missed was when the path by the Vicarage was like a “sheet of ice”. The day started at 9, sometimes with “drill” (physical exercise). At mid-morning break, on a very cold day, cocoa and sugar was mixed together by one former pupil and brought from home in an OXO tin. There was no running water. Water was either pumped from a well or drawn from the storage tank in the loft, which “tasted horrible” but on a more positive note a hot lunch of stew, shepherd’s pie or sausages and mash (a favourite) would sometimes be served at the Parish Rooms, no. 4 Church Cottages, adjacent to the Church on Paul’s Hill. This would be organised by Mrs Murray from the big house close by, The Knoll.

The schoolroom and lessons

The main room in the now Church Hall was then the large schoolroom, partitioned so that infants were separated from the slightly older children. The older children would be taught by the then Headmistress, Miss Dawson. They would sit two to a desk, backs to the partition and facing the fire which would be lit in the morning by the caretaker and then taken care of by older boys. Miss Summers was the infant teacher where there were “scribbles and painting… to get us into the hang of being away from home.” Children graduated from writing in pencil to pens with detachable nibs and inkwells. T he older children, “as they got on” would help with the youngsters. There was no homework. Children who misbehaved might be sent into the North Room (a smaller room at the back of the building), but generally behaviour was good.

A Church school at the heart of the community

The decade before, the headmaster would live in, in rooms above the school (now the Parish Office.) Miss Dawson would lodge at the public house next to the school, The Crown, and be taken by “taxi” (usually the Baker’s van) to stay with her sister at the weekend. Other notable figures at the time were the attendance officer on his bike, the inspector Mr Mumford, later the vicar of Holy Trinity, and the nurse, “the bug nurse!” Naturally, for a Church School, links with the Church were strong. Mrs Winter, the organist’s wife, took Sunday school and children might also be involved in bell-ringing or choir and a nativity, attending Church several times on a Sunday (and walking there). One of the accompanying photos shows that the children took part in a local fête, making costumes for the occasion. There was scripture and a hymn over at the school each morning, accompanied on the piano. Some sports, including “baseball” and  football, formed part of the boys curriculum whilst girls did needlework. There would be coveted prizes for different school subjects including the best kept garden patch (round the sides of the school site), a drawing prize and the Bishop’s Prize for Scripture.

Penn Church School pupils, some reluctantly, dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses
for a local fete in the early 1920s.

An evocative school photo from Edwardian times, before the 1910 extension.
(Thanks to Eddie Morton & Miles Green for finding this).

Acknowledgment

Particular thanks to Mr Herbert Druce, a parishioner, who recently celebrated his 104th birthday and who attended from 1921. Parts of our conversation are directly reported above and he shared with me the fête photograph in which he appears. Herbert’s memories of Penn Church School are overwhelmingly positive,
“I enjoyed it… the teachers were so caring.”

Memories from other contributors to follow!

If anyone has association with Penn Church School please do contact me, Zoe Clark, via the church office on 01494 813254, or office@holytrinityandstmargarets.co.uk


Penn Church School Part 2: The pre-war 1930s

This is the second part of the story of Penn Church School, as seen through the eyes of former pupils. We now enter the 1930s. Huge thanks to Joy Feast (née Allen) for hosting a reunion with Dorothy Bates, Wendy Howard (Jackson), Barbara Higgs (Baker) and Peggy Walker (Pusey). I was generously welcomed into the home of Jeff & Sylvia Adams – and met older brother John. I chatted to Roy Allen by phone. Thanks to those who shared personal photos from their own collections.

An outdoor life

What is really striking is the enjoyment found by all contributors in their natural environment. As a group, the children of Forty Green would walk up to school and Sunday Church activities and “knew where every bird’s nest was.” It was a childhood of “amazing times” where people could leave their doors open and their bikes outside, where there were “no worries about money.” Occasionally the laundry man would come past and give the children a lift to school in his van. Other children walked from Crown Lane, Knotty Green, Tylers Green and Penn Street.

During the school day there were sometimes games on the field down by the Crown public house. “You would go through a kitchen gate to the wood for nature walks where you would learn about birds and flowers.” Girls and boys enjoyed gardening (with each child having their own strip around the playground). Dorothy Bates had blue irises in her patch. Roy Allen told me he had no problems when he moved on to school in Beaconsfield, except that he was punished with a caning when he tried to set up an allotment there!

Church Family

So, to most, school was “like a happy family.” Two of the contributors’ said that their parents attended before them. The opportunities for involvement in the life of Holy Trinity Church were extensive, expected and aided a sense of belonging. On Sundays, the children would go up and down to church 2 or 3 times for Sunday School, the 11 o’clock service and Evensong, or for bell ringing and choir. Each child would have a Churchyard grave to look after and would collect wild flowers to decorate the Church Porch.

There was an afternoon walk with some fraternising with members of the opposite sex! All Christian festivals were celebrated. The nativity play was quite an occasion (see several well-lit photographs reproduced here).

There were annual prizes and awards including a Bishop’s Prize and a prize for Scripture as well as a prize for perseverance; contributor Joy’s name appears more than once against these accolades.

Daily life

In this period the Head was Miss Mitchell who was “always very strict”, and never ill! She used to drive a car and was respected by the children. Miss Davis was the “lovely” junior teacher. The school day ran from 8.45 – 3.30, starting with the register, a hymn and a prayer. Desks were in pairs, with lids that lifted to store books. “At morning break there was milk, coming by horse and cart, frozen in the winter and half sour in the summer!” and “The outside toilets left a great deal to be desired… there were ashes in the bottom…” Boys and girls had separate playgrounds – with the girls at the front and the boys to the side where the car park is now and where the alms-houses were. The Walls ice-cream van might sometimes stop outside after school.

Practical skills were encouraged. In early 1938 five senior girls attended a domestic science course whilst, on Fridays, three senior boys attend the handicraft course at Beaconsfield Senior School. Dressmaking was offered as a subject. A party of girls attended the Folk Dance Festival at the Town Hall, High Wycombe in July 1939, the same month as a trip to Whipsnade – and, of course, very shortly before the outbreak of war.

I was told by separate contributors of light-hearted teasing of the younger children with talk of the ghost of Daddy Carstairs, living on the upper floor of the school! There was also an incident where a snowball was thrown and the window of the North Room broken which resulted in a “bit of a telling off.” Overall, behaviour was good and discipline firm. There were “a handful of rulers” in the head teacher’s drawer for those that didn’t toe the line! One male contributor remembered how walnuts, collected on the way to school at Penbury Grove, stained their hands. This led to accusation of smoking and was punished with a caning.

School Inspection

In the old bindings of this bulletin, formerly the “Penn Parish Magazine,” there are consistent reports of praise for the “good work” of the Penn Church School in the regular Diocesan Inspections. In April 1938, at Prize-Giving and Open Day, a local council official speaks of the value of small schools in the “development of character”, with the “most valuable asset being the close contact between teacher and pupil.” Penn Church School roll was at most 70 children, and towards its final years much smaller. This was despite the fact public subscription had raised £1250 to double the size of the school in 1910. (This investment was not matched in provision of local housing for young families.)

The 1918 Education Act, as well as raising the school leaving age from 12 to 14, brought medical inspection into schools. “Nitty Nora” the nurse and the doctor and the dentist would see Penn School pupils on the upper floor of the school building (now the Parish Office). One female contributor recalled that after her dental treatment her mum had to bring the pushchair to take her home! Another told me that she was supposed to have one tooth out and they took out about six! The school attendance officer would visit. There were absences for measles and mumps.

The School in wartime

Wartime brought different opportunities and challenges – including refugee children joining the school. When attendance fell off at Sunday School in early 1940 the May Parish Magazine exhorted parents that it was their “duty” to continue to send their children. A write-up of the school from 1939 until its closure in 1949 will feature in the next newsletter edition. Thank you for reading.

Parish Newsletter, April/May 2019. Zoë Clark


Penn Church School Part 3: Approaching War

In this third instalment we will hear about how Penn Church School (now the Church Hall), and its community adapted to the coming of World War II.

The preceding months

During early 1939 the threat of war grew ever closer, but the school continued with its usual activities. In July the children enjoyed their annual outing, this year to Whipsnade Zoo (which had opened in the 1920s). Pupil Margaret Hill commented “We reached Whipsnade at about 2 o’clock and wanted to see the chimpanzees have their tea. They had grapes, oranges, apples and bananas. I had a ride on a camel which was most bumpy.”

Sports day had this year taken place in June in the grounds of Mrs Cuthbert’s home Hatchits. This large detached house and gardens is behind the Church Cottages adjacent to the Church and was also the HQ of the local Home Guard. Former pupil Roy Allen won the potato race!

Roy had joined the school in 1936 at 4 years old and recalls with great fondness “happy days”, “amazing times” and being “like a family”. He remembers the Forty Green group walking up together, learning about nature and feeling part of the Church community (and, if they were lucky getting a lift in the laundry van!) Roy says that he remembers more of his time at Penn School than at Beaconsfield where he went next.

The arrival of refugee children

Fear that German bombing would cause civilian deaths prompted the government to evacuate children, mothers with infants and the infirm from British towns and cities during the Second World War. The first wave was on 1 September 1939 – the day Germany invaded Poland and two days before the British declaration of war. Over the course of three days 1.5 million evacuees were sent to rural locations considered to be safe. Five-year-old Barbara Baker travelled from the East End of London with her mother before arriving at Penn School which was being utilised as the billeting office; the place where children were allocated to their “billets” (host families).

Barbara felt very fortunate to go to a lovely home with Colonel Nicholson and his daughter in Knotty Green. Her description of the allocation process is vivid as there was a last minute change of plan: “I remember being there as clear as anything, because these people came to pick us up… but someone said that’s all wrong, you’re going with this person (the Nicholsons). I wonder what life would have been like with that other family?” Barbara settled in the area and continued at the school until it closed in 1949. She said, “when the bombing seemed to stop the others went back.” Please see the recent group photo which includes Barbara and school friends.


Parish Newsletter, August 2019. Zoë Clark